Eric stood in a dark room.
The floor below his naked feet was pure black, glossy like polished marble, cold to the touch. Faint silver light shone from above, like a broad ray of moonlight. The ceiling and walls, if there were any, couldn’t be seen.
Frantic mumbling caught his attention. Eric turned to see a tall column of glass. Seated at its center, rocking back and forth, hugged knees to chest, was a naked man with his face hidden behind his legs. His hair was dark, cut short, with curls gone wild from lack of care. Eric couldn’t tell what the man was saying, but he appeared to be clearly upset. Eric saw in that anxious rocking the physical signs of madness that would have overcome him in the lake had he been able to move.
Water began to rise within the column.
“What?” The man rushed to his feet, looking down at the water. “No, no, no, no. This can’t be happening!” He was backed against the glass, used both arms to hold himself up. His fingernails had been noticeably chewed bloody. When he saw Eric, his eyes went wide with fright. “No! You can’t be here. You have to leave!”
Eric raised a brow. Someone can’t handle their shit. He took a closer look at his surroundings. Where the fuck am I? The last thing he remembered was catching fire – when he’d killed himself. He was dead. He’d always thought people who committed suicide were selfish and weak. Yet, here he was. Eric frowned at the distinct lack of electronics. If this is the afterlife, it fucking blows. Even hell has to have an xbox. Or an ipad. Something…
“Please!” the man pleaded in a strained voice. The water had reached his ankles. “You have to go. Now! Before it’s too late.”
“Bad news, chuckles,” Eric said. “It’s already too late. You’re gonna fuckin’ drown if you don’t climb out of that thing.”
“I’ve tried!” He came over and banged at the glass with a fist. “There’s no way out. Nothing I do works.”
“Huh. Maybe this isn’t my hell,” Eric said. “It’s yours! Who are you, anyway? And why the fuck am I in your hell?”
The man banged the glass again. “I don’t know what that is!” He got down on all fours and tried to find where the water was coming from. “My name is Jaken,” he said in a voice both panicked and pleading. “I know I’m being punished, but I – I don’t deserve this! It was just a loaf of bread. I hadn’t eaten in days! Please, sir, help me. I beg of you. If you won’t go, please, at least set me free.”
No one had ever called him sir. He kind of like it. Not that it made a difference.
“Seriously, dude. I literally just got here.” Eric looked up at the top of the column but couldn’t tell if it was enclosed. “I don’t know what the fuck is going on any more than you do. If I could leave, I would. I don’t even know how I got here in the first place.”
Jaken got to his feet and tried kicking at the glass with a heel. It sent up all his jangly bits in an unpleasant display.
“Ugh!” Eric held up a hand to block his vision and turned his head away. “C’mon, man!” Jaken hugged his arms to chest and began to sob. The water had reached below his knees. “Alright. Hey, c’mon. I’ll see what I can do.”
Eric searched the glass for seams, anything that that might open. When he found none, he banged his fist against the glass. It rang back in response but didn’t budge. He couldn’t tell how thick it was, just that it was solid. Without tools, there was no breaking through. The way Jaken’s voice carried made Eric think there was no top. He might be able to climb up and help him over. Eric jumped for the lip, but it was easily two feet out of his reach. It was almost as if the column had risen to avoid his touch.
“Look,” Eric said, “it’s not that big a deal. The water’s gonna keep rising. You just gotta swim ‘til it reaches the top. Then you hop over the edge.” Jaken looked up with a sense of hope. “You can totally do it, dude. Just let the water carry you up. No biggie.”
“I – I can’t swim, though.”
Eric sighed. “Of course you can’t. Cuz why the fuck would anything start being easy now? Do this,” he said and waved his arms in front of him like treading water. “When the water starts to lift you, kick your feet a little. Or better yet, just lean back with your arms out. Try to float.”
The water had reached his waist.
Jaken worriedly asked, “Are you sure you can’t just leave? I – I won’t tell anyone you were here. I promise!”
“Sorry man.” Eric shrugged. “None of this is me. I’m just here for the ride, like you.”
When the water level went above his neck, Jaken tried to lean back as Eric had instructed. He floated on the surface, breathing in and out like each one might his last.
“Relax,” Eric told him. “You’re doing fine, man.”
Kicking his feet a bit, breathing more steadily, Jaken seemed to be getting the hang of treading water. He rose higher than Eric and even let out a nervous laugh at his success.
“I’m doing it!” Jaken shouted.
Then he smacked against a glass ceiling.
“Oh, shit!” Eric started banging against the column again. “Hold your fucking breath!” He turned sideways and tried smashing his elbow through. Nothing seemed to work. “I don’t get it. How the fuck did you not run out of air if it’s enclosed?”
Jaken was drowning, and there wasn’t a damn thing Eric could do to stop it. He wanted to save the poor guy, but he was helpless against the glass. Jaken struggled for air, let out bubbles as he clawed the top.
“Fuck, man. I’m sorry.”
It didn’t take long for Jaken’s struggles to cease. He simply went still and slowly started sinking. His eyes were open as he settled to the bottom, an endless stare into the beyond. Eric put a hand to the glass, a farewell and final apology.
The cylinder disappeared.
Silver runes came alight in a charging buzz one by one across the distant walls. They joined together to form a circle, one after another. Eric saw he stood on a wide platform, looked over its edge and saw wards reaching as far down as they went high.
“Ohh,” he realized, and the world snapped into place.
Eric was back in his body – his golem body.
He was in the courtyard at castle Thrallen before the gate. Apparently Jaken, inside an incredibly powerful magical construct meant to conquer kingdoms, had been made to stand guard.
Did I kill him? Eric wondered. Jaken had looked trapped, like he was in the golem against his will, a prisoner. Is that what was supposed to happen to me?
He wondered what was different, why he had free will and could control the golem like it was his own body. He looked down at his arms and chest, where runes were once inscribed across their outer surface.
Did those two mages fuck with my glyph?
He had no way of actually seeing the runes, nor could he tell if they’d been altered. How were they able to control Jaken then? Why wasn’t he off rampaging the countryside, like the goblins had intended? Was the golem just a stupid animated hunk of metal that followed simple orders? Or did it have a set of instructions written directly in the glyph?
Regardless, he had to admit he was happy to be back inside. He’d never thought he could be driven to take his own life, to fall into such a pit of darkness that the only way out was to end it all. It gave new perspective to all the others he’d thought of as weak… his cousin Sarah, who’d been a cutter and finally went all the way. There was a kid at school, a freshman, just a year behind Eric, who’d already had mental issues before the bullying.
He put them from his mind. It did nothing for him to dwell. It just felt so damn good to be back! He flexed his fingers, felt the strength, all the power running through him. He wanted to never be that weak again, to feel that helpless and alone. He reveled in the enhanced senses, let the world come rushing in.
Eric looked around to see men standing guard and immediately saw they’d been marked. Not all of them, but enough, and every one of them in black. Their veins stood out in an ashen glow, like a corruption in their bloodstream. Half a dozen pikemen lined the gate on either side. They looked as bored as the task sounded, leaning heavily on their pikes or simply struggling to stay awake. It looked like every archer from the keep was manning the wall. Knights patrolled on horse outside, and sentries had been posted further out along the hilltops. Sebran must have been expecting the goblins to attack.
He felt a tingle of magic pull his attention toward the gate. Beyond the metal bars, purple fire seemed to burn in the shape of a large claw mark. He wasn’t able to see its glyph, but he was sure the enchantment was meant to mark the location. It had the same feel as magic the seeker had used against him. Could one have found its way to the castle? Did that mean more were coming?
Awesome, Eric thought sarcastically. Not only do we have to deal with the Hunt, once I evict this jackass, we’ve got fucking demons with a vendetta on the way.
He turned and headed for the castle entrance. The pikemen didn’t seem startled or even ask where he was going. Either they were used to Jaken following orders without verbal command, or none of them cared. There were workers moving about the courtyard, carrying wood and rolling barrels, tending horses or fetching water from the well. Soldiers stood at either side of the steps. No one seemed to pay Eric any mind as he strode past them all and into the castle.
Most everyone was outside, with the exception of servants in the kitchen and soldiers asleep in the other room on his left. Eric could sense their essence through the walls. There were two more upstairs, one using magic, and a third far below. If the mages were in the castle, he’d have to deal with them first.
He did his best to walk lightly, but each step across the stones rang out much more loudly than he’d wanted. It was one of those disadvantages to being metal – he’d never be a true rogue. Any chance of stealth was simply out of the question.
Eric went upstairs toward the room he sensed the two people and magic. He stopped at the end of the hall, so they wouldn’t hear. It sounded like they were arguing or at least having a heated discussion. One of the mages was no longer able to work magic. They were trying to discover why, but frustration was getting the better of whichever of them had been affected.
He could be infected, Eric thought and slowly moved toward the door. He tried to recall everything Griz had told him about working magic. It had to be focused from somewhere, a ley line or from within themselves. What if inner magic was channeled from the spirit? If the black glow meant corruption of the soul, it made sense his magic would be affected too. Good. Means I only have to kill one of ‘em.
Eric was suddenly worried he could be infected. His runes, his glyph, were protected on the inside, but where was his spirit? If someone infected scratched his metal, would it spread to him? Or did they have to touch his runes directly? It didn’t seem likely, but if his soul was corrupted, if he lost access to its magic, would he die? Or was the golem completely separate from his spirit, fueled by the essence he took from others? His head swam with too many unanswered questions.
He more broke through than opened the wooden door. The handle was too small to work, so he simply pushed the door open. There were more splinters and twisted hinges than he expected. While the doorway was spacious, it wasn’t made to accommodate golems. He had to duck to step into the room. The ceiling was unusually high, just like everywhere else in the castle, but none of the rooms were perfect squares. There was only one section, by the door, where he could stand without lowering his head. The rest of the room sloped toward the window. Both mages sat on either side of a table. One was working a spell, while the other wrote in the air to no avail. They both seemed annoyed and surprised to see him and were rightly outraged by the broken door.
“You were not summoned!” the one with magic said, only half paying attention to the splintered mess in the doorway.
“Why are you here?” the other demanded. He kept shaking his hand out, as if his fingers were to blame for the lack of magic and not the ashen glow running through his veins.
Eric hunched as he walked over and still managed to scrape his head along the slope. He grabbed each around their neck and shoulders. His hands were so large they completely covered the mages’ fronts. The spell the first had been working fell apart in a golden shimmer. Their heads poked out of Eric’s grip, as if a squeeze could pop them off. He used just enough pressure to prevent them from yelling for help. Both started to turn red, which meant they couldn’t breathe either. It was difficult to gauge his strength sometimes, especially with brittle old men.
“Oh, ya know,” Eric replied casually. “I was just out for a walk and thought I’d stop by to shoot the shit. Feels like it’s been forever since you guys buried me in that lake.” Eric laughed. “Good times, good times. So, how ya been?” He eased up enough to let them breathe. They gulped in ragged gasps through their ridiculous wizard beards. “Catch me up! What have you fuckers been up to?” To the one who could still cast, he happily warned, “If you try to cast a spell, I’ma pop your head back like a pez dispenser.”
The corrupted one sputtered, “Lord Sebran has only reclaimed what was rightfully –”
Eric choked off his next words.
“How did you reconnect with the golem?” the one in his left hand asked, afraid but genuinely interested. “What happened to the woodcutter?”
“Oh, don’t you worry, Gandalf.”
“I – I am Balzak.”
“Right, right. That’s what I meant,” Eric said. “Don’t you worry, Ball Sack. Jaken is just fine. He says ‘Hi,’ by the way. Ya know, before he drowned. So, what do you guys know about the Hunt?”
The second mage was turning a shade of purplish red. Eric decided to relax his grip before the old man passed out. The mage gasped and choked, fought to take in air, while the first stammered out a reply.
“Stories of fey stealing souls… it is for children, bed time tales to make them behave.” Ball Sack sounded like he believed he was telling the truth. “It is a fiction, a fantasy. They are not meant to be taken literally.”
“That true, Saruman?” Eric asked the second with exaggerated interest.
The mage hedged, as if unwilling to correct him. He must have known whatever name he gave, Eric would find a way to twist it into a mockery.
“Yes,” Saruman agreed, “as far I am aware. Fey have not been seen in generations, and rarely more than one. They were never as bad as stories made them out to be.”
“If the Hunt was real,” Ball Sack said with a little too much incredulity for someone in a position to be choked by a giant hand, “word of it would have spread. There would be bodies everywhere.”
“If they were real,” Saruman pointed out, “it would not matter. The barrier construct at Westorval shields the entire world, not just Faradim. No magic transport can get through to Taellus in large enough numbers to be of consequence. Not even fey.”
Eric stressed, “But something can get through.”
“In theory,” Ball Sack replied grudgingly, “anything is possible, but in the real world?” He scoffed and shook his balding head.
It made Eric wonder where their hats were. Somehow the whole situation would be more satisfying if they were wearing them. It turned out Saruman was smart enough to finally ask the right questions.
“Why are you doing this?” He narrowed his aged eyes. “Why have you not killed us and been done with it? What are you really after?”
Eric asked the broken mage, “Aren’t you just a little bit curious why your magic isn’t working?”
“How did you…” Ball Sack began to ask.
Saruman gave a hmph! “What has happened? You must already know. Tell me.”
“First,” Eric said to Saruman and drew their heads close together, “I want you to bite Ball Sack on the cheek, and you better draw blood. Your lives depend on it. Now, kith,” he said in his best Mike Tyson voice and brought Saruman close enough to chomp his friend. When he did, Ball Sack cried out and cursed in a very unwizardly-like fashion. Eric pulled them apart and saw the bloody bite mark. “Excellent!”
He let them both go. They fell back onto the pieces of broken wooden chairs Eric had dashed when he grabbed them. They both worked to their feet, which took a while without their standard issue knotted wizard staves, and brushed off disheveled robes. Ball Sack wiped at his cheek with a sleeve of his robe. He wasn’t marked, so his veins hadn’t been glowing. He was, however, infected now. The magic coming off him began to turn, became just as sour as Saruman’s.
“Try to cast a spell,” Eric told him.
Ball Sack raised a brow but went back to working whatever magic he’d been at before Eric came bursting in. His eyes narrowed when nothing happened and then widened with realization.
“Good,” Eric said. “Now I don’t have to kill you. I was trying to tell you at the keep, but you fuckers wouldn’t listen. There was a stalker there, marking all kinds of people.”
“A fey?” Ball Sack asked, more confused and fearful than surprised. He shook his head against the notion. “That is not –”
“You’ve been marked,” Eric told Saruman. “That’s not all, though. Something else is going on. Your spirit is corrupted.”
Saruman flinched, touched his face and chest, as if he could diagnose his own soul.
“My spirit,” he asked. “What do you mean?”
“I mean the first person I saw marked had her veins all glowing in this golden light. Most everyone else was in black. I saw her get scratched,” Eric said with emphasis, and feigned scratching Ball Sack’s cheek, “and hers turned black too. Just like you.”
“Am I marked as well?” Ball Sack asked. His hands were trembling. Eric shook his head no. “But you made him infect me. That is why I cannot work magic. Why would you do that to me?” He seemed oblivious to the whole part where he helped stuff Eric’s spirit back into his corpse and dropped him to the bottom of a lake. “A contagious infection of the soul… How is that possible?”
Eric would have rolled his eyes if he had any. “Don’t you remember? Anything’s possible,” he said in imitation of the mage’s voice. “I don’t know why or how, but I think it’s got somethin’ to do with the lich. Tragona was experimenting on people here in the castle. I saw a dude at the keep who looked like he’d been torn to little pieces and sewn back together. He wasn’t marked when I saw him, but his magic was definitely off. I could feel it, even smell it. It’s like… magic is a stream, and someone further up took a shit in it then pissed just in case.”
Ball Sack’s shoulders slumped, like he’d been told he had cancer and only months left to live.
“Your analogy,” he said, “though crude, may not be far off. If spirits are being infected in such a way their magic is hampered, their impurity could carry back to the ley lines. One person would have little effect, but thousands?”
Saruman leaned on the table from the weight of his realization. “The Academy… if this infection has reached Westorval –”
“The barrier,” Ball Sack finished. “It could fail.”
Eric said, “Sounds like it already has. Aside from the stalker at Cledford, I ran into a collector in the forest just south of here.”
Ball Sack was visibly shaken, his voice weary with concern. “We must warn the Assembly. If you have seen two in so short a distance, there must be many more elsewhere. If the barrier has already been compromised enough to allow so many through –”
“It is only a matter of time,” Saruman said, “before it utterly fails.”
“Yeah, that’s rough,” Eric said. “Well, good luck with that! I’ve got a lord to go murder.”
He waved and headed back out of the room.